Business & Tech

Shirley Leung

More cracks appear in the corporate glass ceiling

For years, they have been on the Boston Club’s notorious “zero-zero” list: Massachusetts companies with no women in either the boardroom or executive suite.

Even with all the research showing the value of diversity to corporate bottom lines, the zero-zeroes seem trapped in a time warp.

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But something happened in the latest Boston Club survey out on Wednesday: The number of zero-zero companies shrunk from 15 to 9, the biggest drop in nearly a decade.

Typically, the same companies show up on the bad list year after year, suggesting an unwillingness or inability to change corporate culture. Of the half-dozen companies that finally shed the zero-zero label, four had been on the wrong side of gender diversity for more than a decade.

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Susan Adams, coauthor of the Boston Club study and chairwoman of the management department at Bentley University, couldn’t explain the big decline other than to say, “Maybe they got tired of being on the zero-zero list.”

The one that jumps out is Safety Insurance Group, one of the biggest home and auto insurers in the state. Two years ago, CEO David Brussard hung up on a Globe columnist when she attempted to interview him about the lack of women at the top.

Brussard retired in March, and new chief executive George Murphy, like his predecessor, is still avoiding the media. What I do know is the Boston insurer has struggled in a male-dominated industry to promote gender diversity because there’s little turnover and the company tends to promote within.

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But on his way out after running Safety for 17 years, Brussard promoted Ann McKeown to vice president of insurance operations. She’s now the lone woman among Safety’s eight executive officers, a company with about 600 employees and $1.2 billion in assets.

“When the role as vice president of insurance operations opened up on our Executive Committee, we were delighted to promote our longtime colleague Ann McKeown into that position,” the company said in a statement.

Safety still has work to do. The company has an all-male board, and unfortunately that’s more common than one would think in the Boston Club’s survey of the 100 biggest public companies in Massachusetts. Seventeen firms function without a female director.

Pegasystems, a Cambridge software company, has been a zero-zero since 2008 but got off the list this year after expanding its board and adding ReachLocal CEO Sharon Rowlands in April. Then in September, the company asked Dianne Ledingham, partner and director at Bain & Co., to join the board. Now two of its nine directors are women.

Ledingham brings mobile, cloud, and IT know-how to the table, while Rowlands provides digital marketing and financial services experience.

Like Safety, Pegasystems still has a long way to go. There are no women in the executive suite. Rowlands, who was also the former CEO of Thomson Financial (now part of Thomson Reuters), said she has met with a lot of senior women at the company who feel supported by mentoring and networking.

“We all know diversity contributes to more effective companies. That is on Pega’s agenda, just as it should be for every company today,” said Rowlands. “If you get a balanced group of people and bring in different perspectives, you get better debate, and ultimately you end up with better decisions.”

The Boston Club, which turns 40 this year, is a nonprofit that works to advance women leaders. This year’s study — the 14th — measured a lot of progress to be proud of:

 A record 140 women filled 159 board seats on the boards of the state’s 100 largest public companies.

 A record 18.6 percent of all directors are women, up from 16.1 percent in 2015.

 The number of companies with at least one female director also hit a record high of 83, up from 78 last year.

 Over the past five years, the number of companies with all-male boards fell to 17 from 41. During the same period, the number of companies with multiple female directors rose to 49 from 23.

But of course, there are always speed bumps in the path to achieving gender equality in the workplace:

 The number of female executive officers decreased in 2016 by 2 to 83. Women account for only 12 percent of all executive-level positions.

 Forty-five of the census companies have no women in their executive suites.

 Women of color make up only 2 percent of the directors surveyed.

For Adams, the study’s coauthor, the biggest disappointment is the decline of women in senior executive posts.

“We are never going to get a lot of traction anywhere if we don’t start grooming women at that level,” said Adams.

The setback in senior women could hurt the future pool of female candidates for directorships since companies tend to pluck from the executive suite.

“They are not going to be ready for boards if they aren’t at that level,” said Adams.

No doubt the elephant in the room at this year’s Boston Club gathering to discuss the survey will be how in this election cycle a woman came so close to breaking the country’s hardest glass ceiling.

Women will have to wait another four years for a shot at the White House. In the meantime, let’s keep breaking barriers in business.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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